Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The one less traveled by

"Robert Frost said 'Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.'"

Yesterday was the first time I ever saw Dead Poets Society, a film that I'd often seen airing on cable television and usually flicked by after a few minutes of watching. "This is too much like The History Boys," I thought, even though it came out 17 years before that film and was set more than two decades before it.

But watching it on VH1 Classic, stuck on a plane for four and a half hours, I realized the two were actually more separate than they were related. Yes, they were both about a liberal-minded staff member at a private secondary school instructing a group of boys with a unique presentation of an age-old subject, in the processing teaching them how to be successful in their lives. But unlike The History Boys, which admittedly I also loved, Dead Poets Society is about a group of boys who discover themselves more than it is about a man who teaches them how to find themselves.

Yet there is this one moment in Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams' character, John Keating (pretty close to the name of my favorite poet, John Keats, by the way), asks three of his students to walk around a courtyard. Slowly, as they pace around together, each of them starts to grow in sync with the other two boys and they begin marching as if they were military members of the Third Reich.

 Watch the scene below...

It's a bit haunting, actually, as you watch them go from walking casually to the whole crowd of boys clapping along while the three boys begin marching in perfect unison as Keating walks to their side and chants, "Left, Left, Left, Right, Left."

As they break off, Keating describes the point of the exercise - to "illustrate the point of conformity, the difficulty of maintaining your own beliefs in the face of others."

"We all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go, 'that's bad.'"

It made me think a lot about the point in life at which we decide whether or not we should conform with society; when we decide to do something for our own sake or to take on a habit and then assume it's ours because we were brought into it by society's expectation.

The other day I was sitting around with my dad and my friend's parents talking about what my social life is like at school and at home. They were talking about how when I got home I could call on my guy friends, my 'buddies,' to come hang out and help me move furniture (this delves into a bigger story about wanting to virtually remodel my house, but I won't get into that).

"I don't have any 'buddies,'" I said. And soon the conversation came to be about the fact that all of my friendships have been grounded in our perception that we are "normal" rather than "weird." Or at least, what we perceive as normal.

But what my friends and I perceive as normal is actually the opposite.

I hesitated for a moment, backtracked and rephrased. "Actually, we're the weird ones and everyone else is normal." Everyone around me laughed and agreed.

Because in reality, the idea of conformity versus individuality is not as black and white as Dead Poets Society makes it out to be. It's something nebulous. What seems like it goes against the grain may actually turn itself into conformity while the alternative makes itself into something unique, something that has been characteristic of most of my life and my friendships.

In the past year I've actively pushed myself into situations where conformity thrives.

Parties where drinking is the norm and relationships where illicit materials are used are staples of college life. What I've been raised to think was unusual in society has been presented to me as something that is average, even expected, by my peers.

During high school, I was an outsider along with my friends. While each of us may not have been wholly individual, we were a collective group of unique beings. Because we didn't date, we didn't smoke or drink or have sex or do anything, really (by our peers' standards), we were weird.

But we thought we were normal.

In Dead Poets Society, part of the story leads to one of the main characters coming into dire straits due to their being misunderstood for their originality. They are forced into the corner of conformity, which leads them to induce their own demise.

What the movie does well - since it doesn't tackle issues like an episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation or (dare I say it) The Secret Life of the American Teenager (apparently every teenager in the world is getting/has gotten pregnant, I just wasn't aware) - is remind us that by pushing ourselves into conformity we may just lose ourselves.

This doesn't have to be the worst fate. But in the case of one character, it leads to the ultimate fate.

Whereas there is immense sadness in The History Boys with the unfair loss of a teacher figure (as determined by uncontrollable factors), as we near the end of Dead Poets Society we're reminded how we are actually able to avoid letting ourselves be hoisted with our own petards. We don't have to be victims because we allow ourselves to be victims. By watching a movie like this, we're given all the power we need to literally go against the grain.

And that doesn't mean listening to music that isn't Top 40, having promiscuous sex or drinking when we're underage. Because, really, that's what's expected of us. We're teenagers, we do certain things. Everyone thinks those are the things we do.

Going against the grain doesn't mean just thwarting authority and pretending we're individuals, it means choosing what is right for ourselves and making our decisions because they best represent what we want out of life.

For some that might still mean going against an older authority's perception of what's right. For my friends and myself, that means going against what people our age think is normal.

No matter which position we occupy, the point of living is to take that road less traveled by. The one we've chosen for ourselves. The one that lets us live our lives with the least wonder. Even Frost said in his poem that he was sorry he "could not travel both."

The point is not to do what we think will keep us feeling content within society; societies, whether they be worldwide or collegiate) are constantly changing. The point is to do what will keep us feeling content "ages and ages hence." The road not taken is that which is ours. The one that we choose to travel out of our own best interest.

No comments:

Post a Comment